From Iconic to Symbolic Signs

Last Tuesday (May 10) I took a late morning walk in the beautiful campus of University of Notre Dame, Indiana. It was a quiet rainy day, and I had some free time before lunch.


In the Vatican emblem there are two keys. The golden one symbolizes the power Christ gave to Saint Peter and his successors that reaches the heavens, and the silver symbolizes the same power over the faithful on earth. The key as a signifier of power seems like a convention, it doesn’t necessarily imitate or visually resemble “power.” On the other hand, there’s some affinity between a form of a key and the concept “power.” When we look at a key we see that one of its ends is larger, less unique, and meant to be held by the hand. The other end is thinner, has a very specific form, and meant to penetrate a hole that fits it, and there to turn in order to attain a certain effect. Using a key is a voluntary action to change a situation, using the right tool (it won’t work with the wrong key). Therefore, key resembles power; it is managed by it and leads to more of the same thing.


When I approached this crossroad I didn’t see what I saw later on when I looked at the photo; the crosswalk begins or ends in the middle of the junction. What does it mean? Usually, traffic signs are considered to be symbols; they carry minimal resemblance to what they signify, if at all. It’s true that the black and white stripes resemble human steps, but the fact that the crosswalk doesn’t bridge two sides of a road means that it is a pure symbol. What I understand from this is that you have to make the first or last path on your own, and remember that the key to safety, whatever forms it might have, is in your hand, as it is in others’.

Photos: Noa Yaari, University of Notre Dame I and II, 2016
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